The author considers this recent development against the background of regional and extra-regional equations in East Asia
China, after a period of bad blood with South Korea, appears to be offering a fig leaf to its neighbour. What is the background to this latest development, and what is in it for the China, as well as South Korea and the US, who are all stakeholders in the region?
In 2016, China put unprecedented pressure on South Korea after the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system on the Korean peninsula. China saw this as an attempt by the US to change the balance of power in the region. It also read the situation as diminishing Chinese clout in its neighbourhood. All of these led to a strong response from China, which had economic and diplomatic implications for South Korea. South Korean businesses suffered, and the country was unable to use Beijing’s proximity with Pyongyang in attempts to address the North Korean nuclear issue. This has meant that even though there is commonality in the Chinese and current South Korean dispensation’s approaches towards North Korea, which argue for a diplomatic solution, there has been scant coordination between them.
Regional and Extra-Regional Dynamics: As Thing Stand
China’s growing distance from South Korea also meant Beijing moving closer to Pyongyang. In fact, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un have had several meetings in 2018 and 2019, and Kim has been quite successful in coordinating his moves with Xi in dealing with the US. Meanwhile, South Korea has not able to convince the US about the value of their bilateral alliance. The US-South Korea relationship has grown increasingly bitter in recent years over the issue of cost-sharing for US troop presence on the Korean peninsula. If North Korea disengages with the nuclear dialogue process with the US, South Korea and the US may drift apart further. Trust between the two allies is at a historic low.
The US is also not happy with South Korea’s reluctance to unequivocally join the Indo-Pacific strategy. On the other hand, South Korea is dissatisfied with Washington’s lack of mediation in worsening Korea-Japan ties, with some seeing it as tacit US support to a more aggressive Japanese foreign policy under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Over the last two years, South Korea’s disputes with Japan on various issues have intensified. This was reflected in Japan’s decision to remove South Korea from its ‘white list’ of countries, and South Korea’s reluctance to extend the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA).
China’s Outreach to South Korea
It is on the basis of these developments and their future potentially negative impact that China is now attempting to explore a new beginning with South Korea. In early December 2019, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Seoul for high-level discussions on a variety of mutual issues of concern. Although some meetings have indeed taken place in the recent past between Chinese and South Korean leaders, they have been mostly symbolic. Wang Yi’s visit is significant first because this is the first high-level meeting between the two countries since December 2017, when South Korean President Moon Jae-in went to Beijing.
Importantly, while the recent meeting did not bring any forward movement on the THAAD issue, a sense of reconciliation was quite visible. South Korea reiterated China’s crucial role in addressing North Korea’s nuclear programme, and the Chinese foreign minister demanded South Korean cooperation in its fight against “the global rise of unilateralism,” without naming any specific country. Wang Yi emphasised China and South Korea’s geographical proximity, and their roles as friends and partners, and went so far as to say that they would never acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear power.
China also appears to be looking forward to Moon Jae-in’s visit to Chengdu to attend the South Korea-Japan-China summit on 24 December 2019. Hua Chunying, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, has said that this would be an opportunity to conduct in-depth discussions on issues of mutual interest. The Chinese Ambassador to South Korea, Qiu Guohong, has also announced a forthcoming visit by Xi Jinping to South Korea in order to bring the countries closer.
Overall, it is clear that China is making a diplomatic overture towards South Korea. The objective of getting the bilateral relationship back on track would also be to put further distance between Seoul and Washington. Even if China is unable to achieve this objective, these attempts will still contribute to strengthening South Korea’s fence-sitting on the issue of the Indo-Pacific, and therefore its role in the US’ emerging strategic calculus for the region.
The author is Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, JNU, & Visiting Fellow, IPCS